2020 / 01

Invisible Code

Digimarc® starts The Barcode Revolution.

The barcode was first used publicly in a supermarket in Ohio, USA in 1974. There, a package of chewing gum marked with a barcode was registered by a scanner cash register. That was 46 years ago. 

Although a lot has changed since then - all products available in a normal supermarket are marked with a barcode - the basic technology is still the same. And all the mistakes are the same too: code capture only after multiple scans, error detection due to creased codes or illegible thermal print codes, loss of time at the checkout due to the cashier’s search of the scanning field. 

Most of these problems can be solved with the Digimarc® process. The invisible scan code from this American company is printed all over the packaging. Even if, for example, one of the imprints is destroyed by folding, all remaining codes are still present and functional on the packaging. In addition, the code is (usually) on all sides of the packaging, so the search is also eliminated. This time saving thanks to error-free scanning and elimination of the search for the code is also recorded in the Guinness Book of Records: 50 scanned items were recorded in 123 seconds with a conventional scanner; by contrast, the Datalogic scanner checkout for Digimarc® codes took just 48 seconds, i.e. less than half the time!

Now all that remains is for the customer to catch up with the bagging.

A few attempts to upgrade them in terms of design have remained the exception (Image: Hans Haase )

This process is particularly interesting because no special technology is required to integrate the codes into the normal printing of the packaging. The graphic is integrated into the printed image and is applied in - for example - offset, laser or inkjet printing as well as engraving and flexo printing. This means that almost all materials can be provided with the invisible code. On the packaging itself, of course, some space is freed up. For most package sizes this is not really relevant, but especially smaller units have much more space for their branding, partly because the code takes up only approx. 10 cm2. And let’s be honest - the previous black-and-white codes are not particularly decorative. A few attempts to upgrade them in terms of design have remained the exception (Image: Hans Haase ) and the fact is that the code must be high-contrast and visible.

In particular, the method of printing the code all over the packaging for better readability - as is frequently done for some private labels in retail - is not conducive to the aesthetics of the sleeve. Time-saving scanning, but not pretty.

The Digimarc® code is not visible to the human eye. Counterfeiting labels would thus become an impossibility.

The changeover of cash register systems would be quite simple, because the scanners for Digimarc® codes also capture 1D and 2D codes, i.e. the conventional barcode and those which, like QR codes, carry information horizontally and vertically in one field, i.e. in two dimensions - 2D. For supermarket operations, a successive replacement of the scanners - for example, after the end of a service life of the previous scanners - would be a simple matter. The costs for the new devices should pay for themselves quite quickly due to the time saved in capturing the codes.

Additional areas of application

However, the invisible barcode is not only interesting for the retail trade. Even the capture for shipping in online retailing represents a large field of possible applications to optimize, automate and accelerate processes. Automated systems also benefit from the faster and all-round capture of parcels and goods. There would be time savings along the entire logistics chain, making investments in such systems profitable within a very short time.

The interesting aspect, however, is the integration of information for the circular economy. The components of packages are already built into the invisible codes and enable the automatic separation of different plastics or other materials in suitable sorting systems. With this information, more can be done for sustainability in the simplest way in a shorter than most attempts to find alternative materials for packaging that try to reduce CO2 emissions. We are aware of the problems associated with this, and of course research is important in many places, but as with our efforts to improve the environmental performance of packaging: there is not one solution, it is the interaction of many partial solutions that ultimately produce the result. And this is what we should expect from a system such as the invisible barcode with its potential for sorting in recycling.

For the consumer - and thus the marketing of animal feed products - the inclusion of additional information in the code opens up completely new possibilities. Because the codes can also be captured by smartphones or other mobile devices with cameras. And corresponding apps could then provide the user so inclined with information in addition to the product. This is only a matter of confidence-building, for example when it comes to presenting the supply chain for organic products or listing ingredients. For brand loyalty, a points program could be advertised, a prize competition or raffle, the only limit here is the marketers’  inventiveness .

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